On Long Island, Catholic Church's Shift Draws Critics

By Paul Vitello
The New York Times
February 4, 2006

Among American Catholics raised in the years after the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65, church teaching has usually mixed orthodoxy with contemporary notions about the value of dialogue, self-exploration and the full-fledged participation of women in society. Whether by coincidence or not, theirs has been the generation of Catholics that produced the first widespread alarm about the sexual abuse of children by priests, a problem said by some to date back many generations.

But a reorganization of the doctrinal teaching system within the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island, which was announced last week, has raised concerns among some Roman Catholics. They believe it augurs a shift to pre-Vatican II conservatism, a diminished role for women in the church and a new authoritarian stamp on the way 1.4 million church members on Long Island learn what it means to be Catholic and interact with their church.

The announcement offered few details, but the broad sweep of the personnel changes made clear that the reorganization would affect the way children learn the catechism, the way church members are counseled regarding marriage and bereavement, the standards by which doctrinal textbooks are selected and the specific terms and conditions by which people may be included in the Catholic communion.

Church officials said the restructuring was intended only to "re-ground" the faithful in the basic tenets of the church as attendance and financial support have declined, a change most church officials link not to the abuse scandal but to a drift away from orthodoxy. Bishop William F. Murphy, writing in the diocesan newspaper on Wednesday, said the reorganization reflected an "assessment of our strengths and weaknesses," but stressed that it "would not mean a major change in the content of what we offer, which is the teaching of the Church."

Critics, however, claimed that the reorganization was carried out after little consultation with the current diocesan administrators of doctrinal teaching, and that the changes will most affect two departments the Office of Catechesis and the Office of Laity and Family whose staffs are almost entirely female. The diocese's plan calls for the layoff of all 22 full-time staffers in those offices. All but three of them are women either lay professionals, members of religious orders or secretaries and office managers, according to Phyllis Zagano, a senior research associate in the religion department at Hofstra University who specializes in the study of women in the Catholic church.

The departments' mission was the training of the several thousand volunteers who serve in the 134 parishes of the diocese, teaching and counseling children and adults in various situations a function that, as a result of the shortage of priests in recent decades, has become increasingly important, church observers say.

"What this looks like to me, from the outside, is that Bishop Murphy is not comfortable with women having a role in the teaching of church doctrine," Ms. Zagano said.

Sean P. Dolan, a spokesman for the diocese, said that while the number of women in the offices was large, it was premature to assume that women would not be fairly represented in the new system, a combined agency into which the departments would be folded, along with an adult education academy known as the Pastoral Formation Institute. The agency will be elevated to a status within the bishop's inner cabinet, a status none of the predecessor agencies had.

"There is no prejudice involved here whatsoever," Mr. Dolan said. The workers let go could to apply for jobs in the new office, he added.

In a blunter version of Bishop Murphy's reference to the diocese's "strengths and weaknesses," Mr. Dolan said in a telephone interview, "We have about 20,000 baptisms and about 20,000 marriages every year in this diocese, and the question we have to face is, why only a fraction of those people are going to church."

Timothy Kunz, a lay director of religious formation at St. Peter of Alcantara Church in Port Washington, said he viewed the restructuring as "a paradigm shift toward the absolute" and away from "diversity and dialogue among church leaders within the diocese."

"Bishop Murphy tends to make decisions with very limited consultation," said Mr. Kunz, who is an employee of the diocese but had not heard about the changes until about a week ago.

Bishop Murphy said in his column this week, however, that the process of re-evaluation that led to the changes involved "an almost year-long process that sought input from over 600 persons."

Like other critics, Mr. Kunz said the changes seemed to reflect a growing impatience among church leaders with a generation raised on a collaborative and humanistic approach to church teaching favored after the Second Vatican Council.

It was hard to tell how Bishop Murphy's initiative jibed with the policies of other American bishops, or to what extent it indicated a general trend. Bill Ryan, a spokesman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said each bishop was responsible for his own diocese, and "must decide for himself how best to serve his flock."

But Bishop Murphy has been closely allied with a conservative group of bishops, including the bishop of Phoenix, Thomas J. Olmsted, who has banned politicians who are pro-choice or support gay rights from his churches and reinstated the Latin Mass in some parishes. Bishop Olmsted was invited to address an assembly of religious and lay leaders at the Rockville Centre diocese headquarters last October.

Mr. Dolan, the diocesan spokesman, said however that Bishop Murphy's changes of the doctrinal teaching administration had been made solely in reaction to his own mission to teach and spread the faith among a flock that is growing on Long Island mainly among Hispanic and Korean immigrants.

"Why doesn't the current generation have the grounding in the faith that previous generations had?" Mr. Dolan asked. "We have to address that."

Parishioners interviewed Friday outside the diocese's flagship church, St. Agnes Cathedral in Rockville Centre, said they were unaware of the planned changes and seemed unaware of the diocese's notion that they were less well-grounded in church teaching than earlier generations. Sister Carolann Masone said she hoped that the changes, whatever they were, would refocus the church on its mission of helping the poor.

Dan Bartley, a chairman of the Long Island chapter of the Voice of the Faithful, a national group formed in response to the priest abuse scandal, said the announcement this week had sent a shock wave through the community of liberals and activists in the diocese. "What I see here is a bishop who intends to encourage a 'pay, pray and obey' type of Catholic faith. This is definitely a step backward."

Mr. Dolan said the bishop was aware that some would be unhappy with the new order, but said "change is always harder on some than on others."


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